If you’re experiencing shin pain after an intense walking workout, you may be suffering from shin splints. You’re not alone – more than 10% of male runners and nearly 17% of female runners report shin splint-related injuries. The good news is that you can manage shin splint pain, and help to avoid and prevent shin splints by taking some simple steps – like reducing the impact of your walks and using proper walking posture.
The most important thing you can do to maintain a daily walking habit is to reduce your risk of injuries. It’s going to be difficult to walk for an hour a day, get your walking energy boost or burn tons of calories with a walking workout when you’re experiencing intense pain in your shins. When the pain strikes, knowing what to do makes the difference between a day or two of recovery and risking a more serious injury that takes you out longer.
Here’s what you need to know, what to do and who to see if your shins are very painful.
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Shin Splints: A guide
What are shin splints?
“Shin splints” refers to pain in the front of your shins. The technical name for shin splints is “medial tibial stress syndrome,” which refers to your tibia (your shin – the larger of the 2 small lower-leg bones). Stress on your shin bone can cause inflammation and damage to the shin bone itself and the tissue that connects your muscles to your bone. Shin splints aren’t the only source of pain in your shins but it’s one of the most common. The pain in your shins may be present as you start your walking routine, feel better as you get warmed up but get worse as you continue to walk.
What else could be causing your pain?
Shin pain could also be a sign of a stress fracture. Stress fractures are tiny cracks in your bones, usually caused by overuse or repetitive strain or impact on a thin bone. They often occur in feet and shins, and can be serious if left untreated. Stress fractures are unlikely to heal through ice or painkillers, and can get worse or lead to a larger fracture.
If you’re experiencing a lot of pain, or you’re just unsure of what’s wrong, make sure to see a doctor. They can evaluate whether you’re suffering from minor shin splints or a more serious injury.
How do people get shin splints?
Shin splints are often caused by sudden increases in exercise intensity. Runners, in particular, are at risk of shin splints, and new runners who are not used to the impact are most at risk. You can get shin splints from walking, or doing other types of activity, however. People who spend a lot of time on their feet on hard or uneven surfaces (military personnel, restaurant service staff) are at risk for shin splints.
One of the main causes of shin splints is suddenly increasing your activity level. Suddenly increasing your walking speed, distance or intensity can overwork the leg muscles and tendons leading to shin splints. If you tend to engage in higher intensity walking, like hiking, walking stairs or walking on intense inclines, you may be at higher risk for shin splints.
This doesn’t mean that you should never do more intense or more high-impact exercise. Vigorous exercise (that matches your fitness level and experience) can be great for your health. It does mean that you should be careful about increasing the intensity of your workout too suddenly. Don’t suddenly go from leisurely walking to adding long-distance jogging right away. You should also be aware of how your body is feeling, and dial back the intensity if you start to feel pain or soreness.
Preventing or reducing the risk of shin splints
Walkers risk shin splints when increasing the distance or intensity of their workout. Jumping from 4,000 to 10,000 steps, or starting an intense walking workout can lead to increased stress on your shins. If you suddenly change up your walking surface or start walking hills or stairs, you may start to notice shin pain as well. That’s why it’s so important to build up your endurance and intensity gradually.
While preventing shin splints entirely is difficult, you can reduce your risk and avoid the pain with some tweaks to your walking routine. Shin splints can recur over time, so the best way to prevent shin splints from coming back is to avoid them in the first place! Here are some other tips to avoid shin splints and keep your shins healthy.
Wear proper walking shoes
Make sure you’re wearing well-fitting walking shoes for your fitness walks. The right shoes support your feet and help you maintain better form, which will reduce your risk of many injuries – not just shin splints.
Use perfect walking form and posture
Make sure you’re using proper walking posture and technique, even when you’re tired at the end of a long walk. If you notice your form is slipping (perhaps you notice your back is slumped), take a short break and then continue your walk. Proper walking posture ensures that your joints are in proper alignment and your strongest muscles and bones are bearing the weight. Poor posture can shift the impact to other areas, which can lead to injuries. It’s very important to avoid walking with poor posture. You’re better off ending your walk early than pushing on and risking injury!
Try inserts (but get fitted if possible!)
Consider adding orthotic inserts to your walking shoes to customize the fit, support weak arches, add comfort and decrease the chance of injury. Try to get fitted or your feet checked, ideally by your doctor but specialty running or shoe stores may also be able to help. If you choose the wrong insert for a problem you don’t actually have, you may actually making things work and cause shin or leg issues rather than avoiding them.
If you’ve had a long layoff due to injury or life situations, don’t jump back into your regular routine. Start off with less mileage than your usual workout and build your endurance back. If you change walking surfaces, or start a more intense routine like interval training, start off slow and short and monitor how your body reacts over time.
Lower your impact with the right surfaces
Especially if you have a past injury history, try to walk on softer surfaces (like a running track) and walk on level ground when possible. Inclines or stairs can increase the impact on your joints. That’s great for many people, but those with shin (or knee) issues will want to lower the impact of their walks.
Try strength training
Develop lower leg strength by incorporating strength training. This can be as little as mixing up your exercise – cycling, leg lifts, heel drops, toe walking and toe points increase power and flexibility. You can try Pacer’s bodyweight workouts for some ideas.
Keep getting fitter
Increase your overall fitness can help reduce your risk of lower-body injuries. If you’re currently a heavier person, losing weight can take some stress off your shins (and your ankles and feet) and reduce your risk of injury. This may require eating healthier, as too much exercise too fast can actually lead to the injuries you’re trying to prevent.
End bad habits (like smoking)
If you smoke or drink to excess, do your best to quit. Smoking decreases your ability to heal and recover from many forms of injuries.
Give your shins a break
Don’t train the same way every day. Occasionally, take a load off your legs and do another form of exercise, like swimming or yoga, that keeps you fit and flexible while giving your shins a rest.
Treating shin splints + dealing with pain
If you’re already dealing with shin pain, you’re not alone. There are things that you can do on your own to deal with minor shin pain and get you back walking with less pain. When in doubt, see your doctor and get yourself checked out. At worst you’ll get some specific recommendations for treatment, but if it turns out you have a more serious injury you’ll be glad you went.
If you’re dealing with any kind of walking injury, don’t try and push through the pain. Take some time off – even if it’s a day or two – and see if you feel better. Sometimes your body simply needs some time without repeated stress to repair the injured area. You can try doing light stretching or other activities that are great for your body so you’re still making use of your rest days.
Rest includes not just taking time away from walking but making sure you’re getting enough sleep. Sleep is your body’s time to recover from exercise, and chronic lack of sleep can put you at risk of injury in the future.
Reduce your impact
Skip the inclines, stair climbing, fast walking intervals and other intense workouts for a while. See if walking at a leisurely pace makes a difference. Once your pain starts to subside, you can try gradually increasing the intensity again.
Consider new shoes
Check your current shoes and look for signs of wear and tear. If the soles of your walking shoes are severely worn to any one side, it’s a signal that your stride could be out of balance. This may be leading to injuries. Shoe stores sell special shoes that can compensate for stride issues.
Even if you don’t notice extreme wear, if your shoes are worn out consider buying new shoes with more cushioning. For very serious walkers, consider getting 2 pairs of shoes and rotating them every other day. This helps ensure your shoes dry thoroughly and have time to spring back after a walk. Theoretically, they should last around twice as long so the cost should balance out.
Ice (or heat)
Try putting an ice pack on your shins after a walk to reduce pain and inflammation. Alternatively, you can try a hot compress to see if that helps more. Experts and athletes go back and forth arguing about whether it’s better to ice injuries (to slow blood flow and reduce inflammation) or heat injuries (to increase blood flow and promote healing) is better. For minor injuries, try both on different days and see which seems to work better for you.
Try OTC pain relievers (as a last resort)
Over-the-counter pain-relieving medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can help to reduce pain and inflammation. They don’t treat the actual cause of the pain, however, and can’t actually heal your injured shins. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong, so masking the pain doesn’t prevent shin splints and can actually make things worse by allowing you to continue to walk when you really need to rest. Some pain relievers (like acetaminophen) can actually damage your body if used for long periods of time. If you find yourself needing to reach for a pain reliever, consider going to the doctor to get checked instead.
When to seek outside help
If you’re experiencing severe pain, or your minor shin pain just won’t go away, you should contact your doctor or find a walk-in clinic. They can check your shins and potentially do X-rays to rule out a stress fracture or other injury. A doctor can also give you some specific advice on strategies to combat your pain.
Other health conditions that you may have might make you more susceptible to shin splints or a more serious injury. Your doctor can use your medical history to help determine what to look for. It’s always best to go get checked out if you’re not sure.
Shin splints don’t have to ruin your walking routine. Use a common-sense approach to your workout: start with the right walking shoes, fitted by a professional, increase workout intensity and length gradually, cross-train for added strength, invest in your overall fitness and take care of the small pain twinges post-workout, and you’ll get past that lower leg pain.
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